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SCREAM No. 48: August 2010

From Beggar to Benefactor: 
Turning arts funding on its head

Blanche d'Alpuget looked across the theatre aisle in disbelief. At the end of the performance, the director, Don Mamouney, announced the disbanding of Canberra's short lived Fortune Theatre Company. Earlier that day the Arts Development Board sub committee informed the Fortune Theatre Company of its intention to recommend no funding for the company in 1988. As this intention had not even been discussed by the complete Arts Development Board, Blanche, as a member of a different sub committee, had no idea about such a recommendation. Fortune's announcement actually precipitated the final decision.

 

In some arts circles, the funding body was being blamed for the failure of The Fortune Theatre Company. But with effectively two years of operational funding and barely more than a six months program of activity, Fortune was in financial difficulties which made it impossible to maintain its initial commitments and obligations. While the Arts Development Board sub committee was recommending a withdrawal of support for the 1988 program of activity, Fortune was unable to continue its funded commitment to the second half of its 1987 program.

 

Funding bodies can become convenient excuses for failure when individuals and organizations have not adequately taken responsibility for their own producership. In a sense this is a shifting of the burden of responsibility strategy which perpetuates a more problematic situation involving the relationship between the arts and the state.

 

Arts as Welfare

Funding body proclamations about "cultural leadership" being in the hands of a State appointed instrumentality compound this shifting the burden of responsibility. Artists and arts organizations are seen as "clients" in much the same way as welfare recipients are viewed as clients: a problem for a benevolent state. The result can be arts attuned to the dictates and criteria of its financial master, the state. Or, artists adopting a "victim" persona when dumped by the State or not adequately supported by the State. This in turn, reinforces this "welfare" basis of arts funding.

 

Artists as victims and the welfare basis of funding perpetuate the current relationship between the State's funding authorities. Yet, both critics and advocates of the State system of arts funding still ascribe to it a "leadership" role in arts practices. In the typical logic of a vulgar Marxist ideology, there is an assumption that by gaining control of the state instrumentatility for funding the arts, some kind of arts ideal will be implemented; cultural policies articulated; with best arts practices resulting. But this thinking is seriously flawed.

 

Peer Assessment?

The key component of this argument is that "peer assessment" ensures arms length funding decisions which result in fair and reasonable allocations within difficult circumstances. "Peer assessment" is supposed to prevent political nepotism and provide a sounding board and representation for artists and groups applying for funds. It sounds good. 

 

 But the problem is clear. What we are talking about is essentially "peer assessment" for the State agenda and not for the arts. Peer assessment is used, not so much to ensure best arts practices, but as an insurance for purposes of accountability. Semantic justification for arts funding in terms of articulated cultural concern is more significant than actual achievement in the arts. But to provide this justification, it is crucial to achieve the necessary intellectual framework or architecture within which various competing arts activities and programs can be measured and prioritised. Artists and arts advocates are then co-opted into the process whereby this measurement takes place.

 

Now this all sounds very democratic. But there is a very definite flaw in this peer assessment and input strategy. Co-opted artists and cultural advocates become components of a state apparatus coming to exhibit loyalty to a new group. To function effectively, such groups maintain a level of confidentiality and bonding so as to protect the integrity of the group. Being effective in such group structures is no easy task. The skills necessary for achievement within the cohesive structures of group dynamics are of a very highly developed nature. Those more likely to exhibit such skills are lobbyists and social or issue activists, public relations people, psychologists, lawyers, those in management positions etc.

 

The reforming individual or idealist is heard to be complaining of an inability to achieve things. We hear:

 

"Why does it have to be so bureaucratic?" or "I'm not happy with some of the decisions but I can't see any alternative," or "I feel powerless to do much. But I feel it's better to be in there trying and putting forward an alternative view."

 

Members, whether artists or bureaucrats, become peers in a different sense to how it is normally understood. When co-opted to a funding body, one's peers now become other members of this group. So when we are speaking about "peer assessment" we are speaking about a deceptive process. "Peer assessment" now applies to that assessment which takes place within the context, new demands, objectives  and dynamics of this new group: That group being the instrument of the State's funding apparatus.

 

As a member of the State's funding apparatus, one is NOT a peer of the arts. In effect, one becomes split with different loyalties. So to speak of "peer assessment" as a cornerstone of State funding procedures is a gross deception. It is probably less effective than the "council of wise elders" method of assessment or some other means of ferreting out worthy activity through a cultivated sense of arts smell.

Most participants in state based peer assessment procedures are likely to assume responsibility for effective decision making within the arts and culture. In reality, such decision making only need be responsive to the demands and criteria of the State's apparatus. Provided care is taken within this framework, the assessor's integrity is covered and one's responsibilities are discharged. The careful construction of minutes of all the group's deliberations and the matching of proposals to the constructed criteria are the two essential safeguards on one's accountability. With threats of law suits and unpleasant media coverage or ministerial inquiry abounding, such procedures become very important.

In this context, applicants for financial support from the State's funding apparatus are certainly not viewed as peers. They are viewed as clients; sometimes assuming the role as a problem.

 

The Producership Alternative

An alternative plausible basis for public funding of the arts lies in reversing the client relationship with the state. Instead of the artists and arts organizations being the client of the state, the reverse should apply ensuring a professional relationship and removing the benevolent welfarism which currently pervades all levels of arts funding. The State then becomes a client of the arts. However, to achieve this, two parallel developments need to occur:

 

      1.    From within the arts, greater emphasis needs to be placed on the

      discipline of "PRODUCERSHIP", as distinct from artistic direction or

      administration.

      2.    The welfare basis for funding needs to be revised, where possible,

      in favour of INFRASTRUCTURE SUPPORT.

 

While such a strategy does not preclude direct Government initiated arts in welfare programs it structurally removes key areas of decision making and assessment of artistic plausibility from the State instrumentality. Peer assessment within this model is directly linked to PRODUCERSHIP: linking decision making with responsibility for achievement.

 

Strengthening of peer assessment within the arts for artistic and cultural achievement and development is an alternative use of public funds. By utilizing peer assessment where it is most effective, (ie. in the actual areas of practice and implementation) we strengthen the link between decision making and responsibility.

 

To see how this might work in practice, let us consider the area of publishing. Writers submit works to a publisher for consideration. The publisher has some means for assessing the suitability of the work for publication. The publisher might also initiate projects for its own publication. The publisher has a stake in the success of the author. Editors will work on manuscripts and offer advice and assistance. To be a successful publisher, artistic and market considerations are paramount. So favourable assessment of a work's potential is backed up with the responsibility to present and sell it to the public.

 

The State would better utilize the "peer assessment" principle by channelling funds to the publisher for fees, research and development and speculative funds for distribution to writers of merit. Rather than a state appointed instrumentality attempting to offer "peer assessment" of a writer's potential, as measured against a list of the state's criteria, assessment is better left in the hands of the key machinery of the art form.

 

Now it is not always so clear as to just what constitutes producership or a producer. And this is where the arts need to spend time on definition. David O. Selznick, the famed producer of "Gone With The Wind" said in 1957: "My conception of the producer's role is that it is similar to being the conductor of an orchestra. The conductor oversees every detail and interprets as he sees fit. I am a perfectionist. My sights are set high. But I've found that most people have to be forced into raising their sights."

 

The most significant point of the Producer's role is that of responsibility from beginning to end. It involves seeing the product or service in multifarious terms and being aware of influential factors from both within the realm of the work and from external forces. Some might also point to the producer's educative and advocacy roles. It is then, the producer or those responsible to the producer of any work of art who is/are best placed to assess likely quality of any project. Recent developments suggest a movement in this direction (eg. a move to triennial funding) though essentially, companies are still recipients of grants rather than contractors receiving payment for producership.

 

Power without responsibility

While ideologists from both the left and the right will lament a degree of loss in state control over the arts, can it really be argued that state appointed committees are in a better position to judge the potential of an arts product or service than a dedicated and professional producer with a vested interest in its success? The responsibility of the state appointed committee to the project is virtually completed once a funding recommendation is made. Provided correct procedures have been followed, that's it! Responsibility is finished. It's a case of political power without responsibility to the arts.

 

Over a period of decades, thousands of hit and miss funding decisions have been made by these state appointed committees, while boasting some of the best artists as members. While no doubt there have been many successes, the net result has been to restrict the relationship between funded artist and the state to one of benevolent subservience.

 

Peer Assessment and Infra-Structure

To better utilize the peer assessment process from within the art forms, what is needed is a greater degree of INFRA-STRUCTURE funding rather than direct arts funding. A strong infra-structure has its own built in peer assessment procedures based on professional and art form needs. In by-passing this through direct "project" funding, government instrumentalities undermine and subvert the very things they claim to support.

 

For instance, a mediocre writer with a strong flair for sociological semantics may prepare a funding application which appeals to the categories and terms of reference for the funding body. Should a grant be made to this writer, by-passing the need for the writer to gain a satisfactory assessment from a publisher, the processes and quality control from within the art form are undermined.

 

I would suggest it is easier to lobby a funding sub committee for some financial remuneration than it is to influence a publisher or producer to accept one's work.

Ideally, the State would serve cultural and artistic needs best by avoiding any direct arts funding at all. This would circumvent the difficult area of deciding what is art or culture worthy of support. By directing funding into INFRA-STRUCTURAL DEVELOPMENT and needs, the quality of arts products and services are determined by dynamics from within the producership process itself. This would need the state to clearly define its areas of intervention and support within the arts (remembering that only a relatively small section of arts activity is actually supported by the state). Once having done this, tenders could be called from prospective PRODUCERS for programs of arts development.

 

Whatever the actual procedures for such a change in the relationship between the State's funding apparatus and the arts, there is much to be gained by firstly accepting the principle of a change from the Welfare base to one of professional engagement: and so reversing the client relationship.

     

New dynamics within art forms

To achieve this new relationship would require internal change within the arts as to how artistic activity, products and services were organized and structured. Old models of organization, including the very concept and nature of a theatre company, might need to be re-evaluated. More flexible producership ranging across media and utilizing the technology of greater communication and flexibility might well enable a greater focus on artistic creation and less on maintaining power structures within rival units.

 

While such consideration is beyond the scope of this debate, it should be recognized that unless power and responsibility for the future of arts practices are taken into the hands of the arts themselves, such power will continue to be usurped by interested others with semantic dexterity and vested interests in controlling the state's mechanism of financial distribution. At a basic organizational level, there needs to be a revising of amateur control, through the "community associations", structure of arts organization. The inherent caution,  conservatism and the sublimating of artistic concerns to other community or cultural concerns that accompany such organization are guarantied to keep the publicly funded arts in a subservient and welfare relationship to the state.

 

To blame the State for failure of an arts program is only buying into the subservience of the arts to State instrumentalities: reinforcing the "victim" perception and arts funding as welfare.

 

What is required is a professional concentration on new "PRODUCERSHIP" and re-organization within the arts. Strength lies in the power to negotiate with the state and to control the resources to bring arts products and services to fruition.

 

Joe Woodward The bulk of this article was written in 1994 and published in Theatre Australia. Unfortunately, much of it is still relevant. Joe Woodward was Chair of the Performing Arts Committe of the Arts Development Board (ACT), the state funding body for the arts in 1988/89.

 

Contact us: sp@shadowhousepits.com.au

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